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For storm victims, the quest for gas is the latest ordeal

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NEWARK — New Jersey imposed a form of gas rationing Saturday and New Yorkers overwhelmed temporary gas stations set up by the military as exasperated residents of the storm-damaged metropolitan region formed long lines to get gas for their cars and generators.

Officials in New York offered
10 gallons of free gas per person, but so many people showed up they had to plead with the public to hold off until first responders could refill their tanks.

Electricity returned Saturday morning to lower Manhattan’s shops, homes and streetlights, triggering yells of relief from residents who have endured days without power. The city’s subway system also lurched back to life as service between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn was restored.

“I said, ;Praise to God’ ” when the light went on, said the Rev. Grace May, a pastor at Emmanuel Presbyterian Church on Essex Street on the Lower East Side. Life in lower Manhattan had been like “an indoor camping trip,” he said.

For many residents, securing gasoline has become their most important task of the day. Lines of vehicles backed up a half-mile or longer, filling the ramps leading to service areas along the New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Expressway.

Fewer than half of the gas stations in the region had fuel and the electricity to pump it, and each one that did attracted lines stretching for blocks. Many motorists spent hours creeping forward, only to see that the station had run out of gas just as they made it to the entrance.

“I have no power, I’m underwater and I have no gas,” said Cari Rigo, 62, an administrative law judge who spent more than eight hours waiting at three gas stations to fill her car after siphoning two gallons into it from her husband’s motorcycle. Each time, the station manager started waving motorists away when her turn had nearly to come. “My daughter who lives in California said I should come out. But I have no gas to get to the airport.”

Amid a handful of reports of arguments breaking out in gas lines, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) ordered temporary rationing beginning at noon Saturday, with drivers with even-numbered license plates being allowed to fill up on even-numbered dates and odd-numbered cars on the other days. But several motorists said they hadn’t heard the news because they had no power at home, and gas station managers said they didn’t bother to look at the plates.

“I don’t have any time to check plates,” David Singh said as he pumped gas into a car at the Delta station he manages on McCarter Highway in Newark. He estimated that the 900 gallons he had left about 2:30 p.m. might last another hour. Then he would close the station.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced that temporary fuel trucks provided by the U.S. Defense Department would be placed at armories across New York City and Long Island to serve emergency vehicles as well as the public. Cuomo said that 8 million gallons of gas had been delivered by tankers and an additional 28 million would move into the city over coming days.

“Fuel is on the way. Do not panic,” he said, adding that the gas not only would be available, but also would be free.

In Brooklyn, motorists waited up to five hours to get 10 gallons of gas from a temporary station at the Bedford-Union Armory. Pedestrians, who carried two- and five- gallon canisters, waited just as long.

The station, one of five set up in the metropolitan area, was run by scores of National Guardsmen who filled motorists’ tanks and helped city police officers direct traffic.

Lavone Ford, 73, who was visiting family in New York from South Carolina when Sandy hit, said he had waited in his car for 21 / 2 hours at a nearby filling station for gas but that the station ran out before he got to the front of the line.

He said he has waited another five hours to fill a five-gallon canister that he intends to use to start his return trip home. “I’m trying to get back to South Carolina,” he said.

Obama lists priorities

In Washington, President Obama visited the headquarters of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and held a conference call with the governors of the hardest-hit states — Connecticut, New York and New Jersey — and local officials whose communities were damaged by the storm.

“We still have a long way to go to make sure that the people of New Jersey, Connecticut, New York and some of the surrounding areas get their basic needs taken care of and that we start moving back to normalcy,” Obama said.

“A couple of things that we’ve emphasized: Number one, that it is critical for us to get power back on as quickly as possible. . . . Number two, we’re getting assets in to pump as much water out as possible. . . . Number three, making sure that people’s basic needs are taken care of. . . . Number four, debris removal is still important. Number five, making sure that the National Guard and other federal assets are in place to help with getting the transportation systems back up and running.”

Obama expressed concern about the prospects of people enduring an extended period of time without water and power, particularly when temperatures on the East Coast are dropping.

Juan Perez, 36, a mechanic who can’t work for now because his employer in Jersey City is flooded, left his wife and two children waiting in their car as he took his place in line at a Newark gas station, hoping to fill two red cans with gas for their generator.

“It’s to power my house and keep my family warm,” he explained. “We’re spending half our time in the car just to keep warm.”

Shauron Sears, 37, a waitress, said she spent 12 hours vainly waiting for gas on Friday and another hour waiting Saturday at a Sunoco station on McCarter Highway. Just as she got to the front of the line, a manager started waving his arms and shouting, “No more gas!”

Sears said she lives three blocks from the beach, and since her house flooded she and her family have been camping at her sister’s house in Orange, N.J. Nine people are in the house, including a baby, and Sears is eager to return to her own home. But her first priority is to get gas.

“There are people who are buying gas and selling it for $8 a gallon,” she said. “Maybe I can buy some from them.”

Kenia Adradi, 33, a legal secretary, wouldn’t pull out of line even after hearing that the gas was all gone.

“I’m gonna sit here,” she said, her mother by her side. “I don’t want to leave the line and find a fuel truck comes to deliver gas. I’ll try to tough it out and see what happens.”

Some motorists tried to use their waiting time productively.

Rich Smith, 43, a limo driver, read news on his laptop and talked to his sister on his cellphone during his four-hour wait. Ed Flanagan, 45, a financial consultant, read two newspapers cover to cover and listened to the radio during his 31 / 2-hour wait.

For the most part, even those who drove away to look for another open gas station with another long line reacted with equanimity.

“We’ve been nomads since Wednesday, going from hotel to hotel,” said Brian Bishop, 42, a marketer, as a friend helped him siphon gas into his car from a jerrycan that a friend had filled and given to him.

“But our homes are still standing. We still have our personal belongings. When you look at TV, you see others who are so much worse off.”

Lynch reported from Brooklyn.

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